Cultural & Wildlife of The Johnstone Strait, British Columbia
Stretching for 110-kilometers along the east coast of Vancouver Island, Johnstone Strait is a magnificent, glacial-carved channel in British Columbia. It extends roughly from Telegraph Cove in the north to Rock Bay in the south, with no towns or cities along its length. It’s one of British Columbia’s most spectacular kayaking destinations, with a rich cultural history and exceptional wildlife encounters along its length.
Johnstone Strait is a major navigation channel on the west coast of Canada, with cargo freighters and cruise ships using the waterway to access Prince Rupert, Haida Gwaii, and Alaska to the north. It’s fringed by the rugged coastline of British Columbia, Hardwicke Island, West Thurlow Island, and East Thurlow Island before meeting the Discovery Passage as it connects south to Georgia Strait.
The strait takes its name from James Johnstone, master of the HMS Chatham, a Royal Navy brig that played an important role in surveying Vancouver Island. In 1791, his vessel accompanied George Vancouver on the HMS Discovery on a voyage to chart the northwest coast of America.
Despite being named after a British naval officer, Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations people are the traditional custodians of Johnstone Strait and have lived along its sheltered waters for thousands of years. Many Kwakwaka’wakw still call the area home, with their cultural traditions and connections with local wildlife still alive and visible today.
Geology of Johnstone Strait
Johnstone Strait was formed over thousands of years of tectonic activity, volcanism, erosion, and glaciation. Many of British Columbia’s mountains and ranges were created when the Wrangellia landmass collided with North America, with this terrane extending from the south of Alaska along the west coast of Canada.
During the Pleistocene Epoch Ice Age, ice sheets carved through the area’s igneous rock, creating Johnstone Strait, Queen Charlotte Strait, and Discovery Passage. As glaciers moved across the land, their sheer size and weight resulted in erosion and deposition, leading to the fjords, glacial valleys, and moraines seen today.
Ecology of Johnstone Strait
The nutrient-rich waters of Johnstone Strait provide ideal habitat for a wide variety of marine life, with strong currents moving from the Pacific Ocean through the channel. Its bottom fauna includes bullwhip and bladderwrack kelp, with the fronds of bullwhip kelp reaching up to 18 meters in length. Bladderwrack kelp provides a good source of protein, fatty acids, and minerals for a variety of coastal marine life, including sea otters that play an important role in controlling the Johnstone Strait’s sea urchin population. Along the rocky shoreline of Johnstone Strait, you’ll find sea stars and mollusks, as well as sea cucumbers and crabs.
Humpback and minke whales are both sighted in the channel, together with Pacific white-sided dolphins and Dall’s porpoises. Harbor seals, Steller, and California sea lions can often be seen basking on the rocks while grizzly and black bears roam the temperate rainforest along the strait’s shores. An abundance of birdlife can also be encountered on kayaking trips through Johnstone Strait, with sightings of bald eagles a highlight.
Johnstone Strait is also home to one of the world’s largest pods of resident orcas, with roughly 200 killer whales thought to call the area “home”. As a result, it’s a spectacular place to view these majestic marine mammals in the wild while learning about their importance to the area’s indigenous culture.
Cultural Traditions of the Kwakwaka’wakw
Archaeological evidence shows that the Kwakwaka’wakw people have inhabited the area around Johnstone Strait for at least 8,000 years. Prior to European contact, they gathered, fished, and hunted along the waterway during the warmer months before wintering in villages where artistic and ceremonial traditions were cultivated.
The Kwakwaka’wakw are one of several Indigenous nations to host potlatch ceremonies, which were outlawed by the Indian Act in 1884. These ceremonies were integral to the spiritual traditions and structure of First Nations communities, playing an important role in establishing fishing and hunting rights, conferring status, and redistributing wealth.
In 1921, a large potlatch was held at Village Island in Johnstone Strait, resulting in the arrest of 45 people and the confiscation of ceremonial goods. In 1967, efforts were initiated by the Kwakwaka’wakw to have their objects returned, which led to the construction of the Nuymbalees Cultural Centre in Cape Mudge and the U'mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay.
The Kwakwaka’wakw have long been known for their artwork, which is distinct from other Northwest Coast communities and includes carved totem poles depicting narrow eyes. In 1980, the U’mista Cultural Society was founded to ensure the survival of Kwakwaka’wakw cultural heritage, which incorporates traditional fishing practices.
Salmon are not only a valuable resource for Kwakwaka’wakw people but they are integral to cultural identity, spirituality, and way of life. At the beginning of the salmon run each year, the Kwakwaka’wakw hold a Salmon Ceremony that sees the head, bones, and entrails separated from the flesh of the salmon. Twins (who are said to descend from the Salmon People) carry the fish to the river’s edge where the remains are returned to the water. After the ceremony is complete, a feast is held and a traditional salmon dance performed.
Orcas and the Kwakwaka’wakw
Orcas are also revered in the Kwakwaka’wakw belief system and are often depicted as transformational masks used during ritual dances at potlatches. They reflect the connection between the natural world and the supernatural realm and incorporate a string the wearer can pull to reveal their face or the animal visage. In Kwakwaka’wakw mythology, orcas are chiefs of the underwater world and live in a great house near the sea, with porpoises and sea lions as their messengers. Those who are lucky enough to see the orca’s house receive supernatural powers and the privilege to perform the orca’s songs and dances.
Eagles are also commonly featured as transformational masks, with the bird considered a symbol of pride and friendship. Eagle feathers are often gifted between Kwakwaka’wakw to recognize accomplishments and displays of courage or wisdom, as well as being symbolic of commitment due to the fact that they mate for life.
Kayaking expeditions on Johnstone Strait will not only immerse you in some of British Columbia’s most spellbinding scenery but it’s an opportunity to delve deep into the region’s living history. Cultural sites and artefacts scattered along the channel are powerful reminders of the area’s spiritual connections and the Kwakwaka’wakw’s intrinsic links to the natural world.
Sea Kayak Adventures offers a variety of kayaking and whale watching tours in the Johnstone Strait in British Columbia.